Review: Proof – The Delicate Line Between Genius and Instability

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by Carissa Joines

By Stephanie Hess

Spirit Gum Theatre Company, a community theatre company founded and based in Winston-Salem, will be continuing its production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Proof, by David Auburn, this Friday through Sunday at the Community Arts Café downtown.

The story centers on Catherine, a 25 year old genius who has spent her adult life caring for a father whose inspiring career as a mathematician was ended by delusion and madness.  She reaches a crisis point as she struggles with the possibility of inheriting her father’s mental illness, which she calls “instability,” along with his mathematical genius. She questions her perceptions and grip on reality – and at times the audience and the people closest to Catherine question her perceptions as well.  Catherine also searches for a way to share her father’s legacy with a graduate student who admired her father as a mentor in his more lucid days. Finally, Catherine must manage the presence of her sister Claire, who has traded the physical and emotional abandonment of her father and sister for a claim on the control of their real and intellectual property.

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Proof was originally produced off Broadway by The Manhattan Theatre Club in May of 2000, and ran for just over two years on Broadway at The Walter Kerr Theater with Mary-Louise Parker (UNCSA alum) in the lead role.  In the year 2001, Proof was awarded the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, The Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and The Tony Award for Best Play.  It was the second full-length play by David Auburn, who was just 31 years old when it opened on Broadway.

The Spirit Gum Theatre Company is a community theatre company dedicated to producing high-quality theatre and inspiring local actors and artists. It began as three friends who wanted to collaborate together on stage, and they debuted their first show, A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, this past August.  “Spirit Gum” is the adhesive used in theatre to attach costume prosthetics, like the mustache used in the theatre company’s logo.  Both the name and logo capture the playfulness and creativity of Spirit Gum Theatre Company’s founders. The director of Proof, Caitlin Stafford, is one of the founders of Spirit Gum.  She holds a BFA in acting from Virginia Commonwealth University and has been on the stage practically since infancy.  Stafford led the cast beautifully in creating a naturalness, fluidity and movement in a performance space not much larger than my living room, helping the audience feel drawn into the action in a way that was intimate but not intrusive.

Gregg Vogelsmeier, in the role of Claire’s father Robert, makes his debut with Spirit Gum Co., though he has a long history in community theatre throughout the Triad.  Vogelsmeier is a commanding presence on stage, and his portrayal of Robert’s moods as sometimes hopeful and other times phrenetic takes over the space in the same way that a person with disturbances in mood can drain the emotional energy of those around them.  Sarah Jenkins is a native of Winston-Salem who took on the role of Catherine’s sister Claire just a few weeks before production – and there is nothing about her performance that would give a hint that the role did not belong to her all along.  Jenkins’ performance as Claire reveals a vulnerability as well as a need for control – one senses that Claire believes the narrative that she has sacrificed for her family, but is simultaneously trying to shut out the voices that tell her she has not done enough.  Michael Ackerman – who plays Hal, a former student of Claire’s father – is another original founder of Spirit Gum Co.  Ackerman creates a character who the audience wants to believe in – but at some points we experience doubt.  We question his motives in Catherine’s life and with the mathematical goldmine he is given access to – and Ackerman artfully creates a depth of facial expressions as well as a sense of subtext with Hal that leads us to wonder if even Hal is always confident in his intentions.

Rene Lynn Walek, the third founder of Spirit Gum Co., was everything that I would expect from professional theatre – as Catherine she gave a well-balanced and natural performance of a complicated role. A potential pitfall to the role of Catherine is that she is young, genius, and also exhausted and jaded by her life experiences – the danger lies in playing the role in a way which is too precocious or too cynical.  Walek finds a balance that is supremely believable  – she puts across a sense of intelligence and experience that vindicates her as a potential mathematical revelation, and a rough edge that reveals what the last four years have taken from her.  At the same time, she lets a youthfulness show that makes her occasional moments of impulsiveness easy to believe.

Proof will be performed this weekend at The Community Arts Café – January 24 and 25 at 8:00pm and January 26 at 2:00pm.  Tickets are $10 at the door – it is best to come early to assure seating as the venue is quite small.


Read more about Spirit Gum Theatre Company HERE and follow them on Facebook HERE 

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